Regularly ranked as the greenest city in North America, San Francisco is awash with parks, gardens and pockets of green space. But this being San Fran, each one has its own personality from the bonsai and buffalo of Golden Gate Park to the secluded Shakespeare Garden, a flower-filled spot where young couples head to smooch.

Locals have even created more than 40 mini parks across the city so there is plenty to explore. These are the the best parks in San Francisco.

An aerial view of Golden Gate Park from the Pacific Ocean with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is the third most visited city park in the US. Getty Images

1. Golden Gate Park

From bonsai and buffalo to redwoods and protests, and from flowers, Frisbees and free music to free spirits, Golden Gate Park seems to contain just about everything San Franciscans love about their city. You could wander the park for a week and still not see it all, with myriad attractions including the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Botanical Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and Stow Lake.

Former mayor Frank McCoppin's park project seemed impossible in 1866. Even Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York's Central Park, was daunted by the prospect of transforming 1013 acres of dunes into park. SF's green scheme fell to tenacious young civil engineer William Hammond Hall, who insisted that instead of casinos, resorts, racetracks and an igloo village, the park should actually showcase nature.

High-angle view of people relaxing in Dolores Park, San Francisco.
Dolores Park is a chilled green space in San Francisco. ©Katherine Papera / EyeEm/Getty Images

2. Dolores Park

Welcome to San Francisco's sunny side, the land of street ball and Mayan-pyramid playgrounds, semiprofessional tanning and glorious taco picnics. Grassy slopes are dedicated to the fine art of lolling, while lowlands host soccer, Frisbee, political protests and other local sports. Good weather brings cultural events, including Easter's Hunky Jesus drag contest, free summer movie nights, and fall SF Mime Troupe performances. Fair warning: secondhand highs copped near the refurbished bathroom may have you chasing the helados (ice-cream) cart.

Dolores Park was built on the site of a former Jewish cemetery that was used as a staging ground by Barnum & Bailey Circus and sold to the city in 1905 – but it remained bumpy, squishy and poorly drained until its recent regrading. Climb to the upper southwestern corner for superb downtown views framed by palm trees. Behind you at the corner of 20th and Church Sts, note the gold-painted fire hydrant: this little fireplug was the Mission's main water source during the 1906 earthquake and fire, and stopped the fire from spreading south of 20th St.

A crane grus in front of the red Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Bird-watchers (and bridge lovers) love San Francisco's Crissy Field. ©Mizzick/Shutterstock

3. Crissy Field

Crissy Field is a military airstrip turned waterfront nature preserve with knockout Golden Gate views. Where military planes once zoomed in for landings, bird-watchers now huddle in the quiet rushes of a reclaimed tidal marsh. No more secret Army missions here – just puppies chasing kite fliers, joggers pounding beachfront trails, and kitesurfers skimming bay waters. On foggy days, stop by the certified-green cafe Warming Hut to browse California field guides and warm up with fair-trade coffee.

People sit on the grass at Alamo Square Park in San Francisco, next to a series of houses painted in bright colors called the Painted Ladies.
Alamo Square Park overlooks the brightly-colored Postcard Row mansions. ©Hayk_Shalunts/Shutterstock

4. Alamo Square Park

Hippie communes and Victorian bordellos, czarist bootleggers and jazz legends: these genteel 'Painted Lady' Victorian mansions have hosted them all since 1857, and survived elegantly intact. Pastel 'Postcard Row' mansions (aka the Full House sitcom backdrop) along the southeastern edge of this hilltop park pale in comparison with the colorful, turreted, outrageously ornamented Victorians along the northwestern end – especially the 1889 Italianate Westerfield mansion, where Church of Satan rituals were filmed in the tower by Kenneth Anger.

In the 1860s, an outlaw named Dutch Charlie wouldn't let anyone near Alamo Sq's crest – now hilltop picnic benches let you take in the view he so jealously guarded, while toddlers play tag on his turf at a Victorian-themed hillside playground.

5. John McLaren Park

At 312 acres, McLaren is the second largest park in San Francisco proper, and arguably the most underrated. There are some 7 miles of trails (including the lovely Philosopher’s Way) that spread over forests, fields and excellent hillside views of the city. This is a wilder park than Golden Gate, and is great for urban hiking, bird-watching and spotting the random coyote.

The Lands End Labyrinth and the Coastal Trail following along the San Francisco coastline towards a mist-covered Golden Gate Bridge.
Lands End in San Francisco feels like the ends of the Earth. ©Chris LaBasco/Getty Images/iStockphoto

6. Lands End

Looking out from Lands End feels like surveying the edge of the world. Nestled on the point of land between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, the park's hiking trails cross the rugged landscape with alternating ocean vistas and views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Lands End visitor center and cafe are located at Point Lobos Ave and Merrie Way, overlooking the Sutro Bath ruins.

7. Ina Coolbrith Park

On San Francisco's literary scene, all roads eventually lead to Ina Coolbrith. She was California's first poet laureate, editor of Mark Twain, colleague of Ansel Adams and mentor to Jack London, Isadora Duncan, George Sterling and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. But her friends didn't know her secret: her uncle was Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. This hidden, flowery hilltop park is a fitting honor: poetic, secretive, inspiring. Climb past gardens and balconies, and listen for the fog whooshing in the treetops.

The city of San Francisco, as seen from Corona Heights Park, The Castro
Head to Corona Heights Park for some of the best views of San Francisco . ©Anthony Pidgeon/Lonely Planet

8. Corona Heights Park

Scramble up the red rocks of 520ft-high Corona Heights for jaw-dropping, 180-degree views at the summit. Face east as the sun sets, and watch the city unfurl below in a carpet of light. Take tiny Beaver St uphill to the steps through the bushes, then head right up the trail, past tennis courts and rock climbers. For an easier hike, enter via Roosevelt Way.

9. George Sterling Park

'Homeward into the sunset/Still unwearied we go/Till the northern hills are misty/With the amber of afterglow.' Poet George Sterling's poem 'City by the Sea' seems impossibly romantic – but when you watch the sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge from his namesake hilltop park, you'll see his point of view. This is the ideal vantage point to appreciate the town Sterling called 'the cool grey city of love.'

Sterling was a great romancer of all San Francisco offered – nature, idealism, free love, and opium – and was frequently broke. A genuine SF eccentric, he carried a lethal dose of cyanide as a reminder of life's transience – and he became the toast of Nob Hill's secretive, elite Bohemian Club, where he often caroused and crashed. Broken by his ex-wife's suicide and the loss of his best friend, novelist Jack London, the 'King of Bohemia' apparently took his bitter dose in 1926 inside his Bohemian Club apartment. Influential friends honored him by dedicating this park to his memory, with its meandering paths and stirring, Sterling views.

The trees of Yerba Buena Park slightly blocking the view of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
Lush Yerba Buena Park is a welcome relief from San Francisco's surrounding skyscrapers. ©Sabrina Dalbesio/Lonely Planet

10. Yerba Buena Gardens

Breathe a sigh of relief: you've found the lush green getaway in the concrete heart of SoMa, between Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Metreon entertainment complex. This is a prime spot to picnic, hear free noontime summer concerts (see website) or duck behind the fountain for a smooch. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Fountain is a wall of water that runs over the Reverend's immortal words: '…until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.'

11. Lincoln Park

America's legendary coast-to-coast Lincoln Hwy officially ends at 100-acre Lincoln Park, which served as San Francisco's cemetery until 1909. The city's best urban hike leads through Lincoln Park around Lands End, following a partially paved coastline trail with glorious Golden Gate views and low-tide sightings of coastal shipwrecks. Pick up the trailhead north of the Legion of Honor, or head up the tiled Lincoln Park Steps near 32nd Ave. Book in advance for scenic Lincoln Park Golf Course.

A hang glider swirls over the hills and waters of Fort Funston like a swallow.
Get a bird's eye view of San Francisco at Fort Funston. ©Ray Laskowitz/Lonely Planet

12. Fort Funston

Grassy dunes up to 200ft high at Fort Funston give an idea of what the Sunset District looked like until the 20th century. A defunct military installation, Fort Funston still has 146-ton WWII guns aimed seaward and abandoned Nike missile silos near the parking lot. Nuclear missiles were never launched from the fort; today hang gliders launch and land here. Butterflies and shorebirds also flock to the surrounding park, which is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Loop trails and hang-glider launch areas are wheelchair and stroller accessible, and dogs are allowed off the leash in many areas. The National Park Service is gradually replacing invasive ice plants with native vegetation, and volunteers are welcome to join the effort at the Fort Funston Native Plant Nursery (see website for details). The park entrance is on your right off Skyline Blvd, past Lake Merced.

Grace Cathedral at twilight in Huntington Park, downtown San Francisco.
Grace Cathedral in Huntington Park, San Francisco. © Shutterstock / Chris LaBasco

13. Huntington Park

The crowning jewel of Nob Hill is this posh park – once the exclusive stomping ground of billionaires, now a park enjoyed by all, from gleeful toddlers at the playground to street skaters making YouTube videos on the steps. The centerpiece of the 1.3-acre park is the four-sided 'Fountain of the Tortoises,' a century-old recreation of a 400-year-old limestone fountain in Rome. Hop off the cable car for picnics, playground sessions and glimpses of golden East Bay hills around sunset.

An aerial view shows painted circles in the grass to encourage people to social distance at Washington Square in San Francisco, California
Washington Square in San Francisco is in the shadow of the Saints Peter and Paul Church. © JOSH EDELSON / Getty Images

14. Washington Square

Wild parrots, tai chi masters, and nonagenarian churchgoing nonnas (grandmothers) are the local company you'll keep on this lively patch of lawn. This was the city's earliest official park, built in 1850 on the ranchland of pioneering entrepreneur and San Francisco founder Juana Briones – there's a bench dedicated to her. Parrots keep their distance in the treetops, but like anyone else in North Beach, they can probably be bribed into friendship with a focaccia from Liguria Bakery, on the square's northeastern corner.

At the northwestern corner of the park, you'll spot Ben Franklin balancing atop a dry water fountain, donated in 1897 by an eccentric dentist who believed water could cure alcoholism.

15. Buena Vista Park

True to its name, this hilltop park offers splendid vistas over the city to Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay. Founded in 1867, this is one of the oldest city parks – and it's ringed by stately, century-old California oaks. Brave trails weaving uphill through the park, then take Buena Vista Ave West downhill to spot Victorian mansions that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. Note that after-hours boozing or cruising here is risky, due to minor criminal activity.

A couple looks out towards the Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Scott at the Presidio in San Francisco, California, U.S.
There's plenty going on at the Presidio of San Francisco, including super views. © Bloomberg via Getty Images

16. Presidio of San Francisco

Explore that splotch of green on the map between Baker Beach and Crissy Field and you’ll find parade grounds, Yoda, a centuries-old adobe wall and some fascinating art projects. What started as a Spanish fort built by Ohlone conscripts in 1776 is now a treasure hunt of surprises. Begin your adventures at the Main Post to get trail maps at the visitor center and inquire about site-specific art installations by Andy Goldsworthy.

Brush up on your history at the free, renovated Spanish-Moorish Officers' Club, which dates from the late 1700s and now hosts a small museum of local history, plus a lovely club lounge and restaurant. Fans of Mickey Mouse head to the Disney Museum; while fans of the macabre hike directly to the Pet Cemetery off Crissy Field Ave, where handmade tombstones mark the final resting places of military hamsters. Head east of the parade grounds toward the Palace of Fine Arts and you’ll come across the Letterman Campus, home to nonprofits and Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas, whose offices require a special pass – but you can pay your respects to the Yoda statue out front. Thursday evenings (excluding winter) there are food trucks at the Main Post.

The sculpture Ecstasy by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito, made from salvaged and recycled steel, stands in Patricia's Green, San Francisco.
Patricia's Green is not your typical San Franciscan park. ©Naeblys/Shutterstock

17. Patricia's Green

The social center of hip, walkable, tree-lined Octavia Blvd is this pocket park, featuring Burning Man–inspired temporary sculpture installations, picnic tables, and a playground. At the eastern end is the PROXY project, a space filled with shipping containers to serve as eating, drinking, and shopping venues. Spring through fall, PROXY shows free Friday-night movies on an outdoor screen; see the website for showtimes.

18. Shakespeare Garden

Sonnets dot the flower beds in this romantic gated garden, home since 1928 to more than 200 flowering plants mentioned in Shakespeare's writings. With all the poetry and perfume, this is an ideal secluded spot for a smooch – and a favorite setting for weddings.

19. 24th & York Mini Park

The dazzling mosaic serpent-god Quetzalcoatl raiseses his fierce head from the rubberized ground of this pioneering pocket park. Quetzalcoatl has been lurking around this corner in murals since 1972, when neighbors first rallied to turn a derelict vacant lot into a point of Mission pride. The restored mosaic is irresistible to toddlers and its transformative powers are irrefutable – since Quetzalcoatl first appeared here, San Franciscans have created 40 more mini parks citywide.

A group of men crowding around a game of Chinese chess at Portsmouth Square in Chinatown, San Francisco
Portsmouth Square in San Francisco's Chinatown is always abuzz with energy and people. ©Anthony Pidgeon/Lonely Planet

20. Portsmouth Square

Chinatown's unofficial living room is named after John B Montgomery's sloop, which staked the US claim on San Francisco in 1846. SF's first city hall moved into Portsmouth Sq's burlesque Jenny Lind Theater in 1852, and today the square is graced by the Goddess of Democracy, a bronze replica of the statue that Tiananmen Sq protesters made in 1989. Tai chi practitioners greet the dawn, toddlers rush the playground at noon and chess players plot moves well into the night.

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